When I was a young actor I wanted to be as much of an actor as I could be. So I took ANY job that even remotely resembled acting.
I lived in Cincinnati for a year and a half dressing up as an alien from Star Trek at a theme park nearby. I was 21 at the time, so I was getting paid more money than I’d ever been paid before to improvise as a character with other fun folks. It was the best job I’d ever had at that point in my life. During the off-season, I wanted more paid acting work, so I signed up with a talent agency.
I can only remember two jobs that this agency sent me on. I don’t know if it’s because they only sent me on two jobs, or if I just wiped the others from my memory. The first assignment was dressing up in one of those giant costumes with the big head. My first job ever was working at Chuck E. Cheese’s. I was able to get through my entire time there—over two years of ball crawls, bad pizza, and giving kids fluorescent plastic spiders for their skee-ball tickets—without once wearing the big rat costume. I worked at a theme park—a place crawling with big fuzzy characters—and never had to don one of those despicable oversized heads. This was a source of pride. Sure, I did some crazy things as an actor, but I drew the line at wearing those costumes. I was better than that.
Professional actors join talent agencies. I had joined a talent agency. If the talent agency booked me for a job where I put on a ridiculous big-head costume, then I would take it, because it was legit acting work. (Don’t talent agencies only deal with legit acting work?) It was a Madeline costume. I’d never read those books about the little French girl before. Weren’t those books for rich kids whose parents took them to Europe for spring break? Isn’t Madeline a little girl? The head I had to wear was the size of two whole five year olds put together, at least. I can understand the concept of a giant Scooby or a giant Pluto. But a giant little girl is just silly. I honestly don’t remember much about the gig, except for having an unnaturally large head—not the kind that came from thinking I was awesome, but the kind that made me bump into things more often than I normally do.
Shortly after portraying a big little French girl (without even having to do any accent or dialect work), the talent agency sent me to Dick’s Sporting Goods to be a “live model.” This meant that I was posing as a store mannequin. Basically, I would dress up in different sporting attire, like a tennis outfit, hold a racquet and a ball and then stand up on a little platform with real mannequins for twenty to forty minutes at a time. I’m sure that they thought this was a great idea. Dick or whoever works for Dick thought that customers would be amazed at the great acting ability and utter theatrical talent of my performance and be moved to purchase the very comfortable looking clothes. “That tennis racquet must be so light! She’s been holding it in that same position for nearly half an hour! Let’s get one, Clive!” Sadly for Dick and for me, the only thing this moved most customers to do was make rude gestures, flip me off, yell at me, and basically try to get me to move. But I was an actor. This was a professional acting gig (clearly made legit by the talent agency). I was not, for one moment going to lash out and beat them on their jerk-bag heads with my Dunlop easy-grip, Junior-Pro racquet.
Being a live mannequin is very Zen. One must find one’s inner peace. A peace so inner, that one can forgive the pimply-faced sixteen year old who is at this very moment proposing one do Sodom and Gomorrah type things with one’s Dunlop Junior Pro.
This is the Zen approach: nothing is there to be done. There is nothing to do. One has just to be.
I wanted to do a good job at being a mannequin. I wanted to do a good job at everything. Still do. Especially things related to theatre. What is the measure of being the best live mannequin you can be? That’s easy, standing still—very, very still—despite that itch on your left leg or the urge to show that pimply kid your best backhand. But what is the measure of being the best performer you can be? Ah, that gets more difficult to pin down. In a world where friends and self-help gurus and even Dr. Seuss all tell us that what others think about us doesn’t matter, I have chosen to express myself and my creativity in an industry that thrives on what the audience thinks of the performer.
If people don’t like my shows, eventually I wouldn’t have an audience. If I don’t have an audience, I cannot perform. Some would argue that I could just soliloquize to my houseplants. But I feel that good theatre is a conversation of sorts. And I need someone to dialogue with.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Why do audiences come and see shows? To be entertained, certainly. Perhaps to support the performer if they are, for example, that performer’s mom or friend. But I also believe that audiences come to see shows to be given a break from this crazy world or given insight into their own feelings and experiences.
Performance isn’t one-sided. Maybe I am seeking validation from the audience—wanting them to tell me that my crazy feelings are just human emotions, and that they feel them too. But they come to the shows seeking validation from the performers as well—that they aren’t the only ones dealing with rage, jealously, betrayal, lust, fear, joy, excitement, nervousness, and love. Perhaps that’s the best kind of theatre: The kind of theatre that validates everybody.
Performing theatre is kind of Zen.
One moon shows in every pool; in every pool, the one moon.
As a performer who has been performing now for half of my life, being an actor is not just about “being as much of an actor” as I can be. That’s not enough. I’m not saying I want to be the best in the world. How could anyone even quantify something so incredibly subjective? I want to be the best performer I can be. If, as I gain age and wisdom, I gain greater potential, then I can never truly attain my goal. Or, maybe I am always attaining my goal, just before it moves higher.
When you reach the top, keep climbing.